By  on October 7, 2005

PARIS — British designer Katharine Hamnett, a pioneer in using ethical fabrics in her collections, acknowledges there is still resistance to the concept.

"There is still that response of, 'Oh my God, it's bras made out of porcupine quills again,'" she said with a laugh. "The most important thing is that it has to be mainstream fashion. It has to be something you could wear to the office."

Exhibitors at an ethical fashion trade show here this weekend, where Hamnett will be guest of honor, aim to demonstrate that fair-trade fashions have unfairly been tagged with an unhip — or too hippy — image. More than 50 designers from the U.K., Africa, Lithuania, Brazil, Peru and France are showing spring-summer collections, more than double the number of participants at its debut edition a year ago.

Organizer Isabelle Quehe said she's had to turn people away this year. "It's incredible what has happened here in France in just 12 months," she said. Quehe has been organizing fair trade fashion and art events for over a decade, but says "in the fashion world, nobody was interested. Retailers have not been willing to take risks, relying instead on recognized designers and streetwear brands that youngsters buy simply for the name."

There is evidence that is beginning to change. An estimated 31 percent of U.S. college students say they try to buy eco-friendly brands; 26 percent prefer "brands that give back," and 20 percent prefer "brands connected to a cause," according to the third annual College Explorer Study.

That's a big percentage of the $5 billion apparel and footwear market for that demographic. In France, Paris-based marketing research firm Ipsos data show that while food products represent 84 percent of fair trade purchases made by French consumers, 16 percent have also bought clothing or household linen with a fair trade status.

The fashion industry is waking up. This May, Max Havelaar, the international fair trade labeling foundation, launched a label certifying the fair trade status of cotton. The first line bearing the Havelaar label, a T-shirt collection, was launched by PPR-owned La Redoute in its autumn-winter catalogue.

PPR hopes to repeat the success of Veja sneakers, an ethical brand introduced last February. It sold out within weeks. Retailing for 80 euros, or $96 at current exchange, and made from biological cotton in North East Brazil, they are billed to be the first fair trade sneakers."Our suppliers have confidence in us now," said Veja's Aurelie DuMont. To wit: The company is extending its offer to include biological cotton bags and baseball shoe-style sneakers. Now that's organic growth.

Also showing at the trade show will be Misericordia, a streetwear brand manufactured in Lima, Peru, and already carried by hip shops like Colette in Paris. A spokeswoman for the store said Misericordia is selling well, as is the Indian ethical line Kip Dalits, also on show this weekend.

"There are more fashion brands now, more choices," Quehe said. "In the past, organic or ecological labels have been weak in terms of fashion."

Designers marketing themselves for enforcing ethical labor codes or using organic materials insist their emphasis is still fashion and reject being pigeon-holed in an ethical niche.

"We don't want to be 'only' but 'also' ethical," stressed Sarah Ratty, designer of U.K.-based Ciel, a Fifties-themed line that has attracted high-profile clients like Cate Blanchett and Sienna Miller. "It's a well-designed collection that stands up on its own. You don't need to be an ethical store to buy it."

Hamnett also scoffed at the idea that ethical fashion can't be profitable, but allowed that many designers can't go mass market because organic cotton is so difficult to obtain. Young designers cannot afford the minimum order requirements. Hamnett said she's working with the London College of Fashion to provide warehousing needed for sampling quantities, thereby helping designers who want to use organic materials but do not have the capital.

The difficulty tracking down finer fabrics led Hamnett to launch a men's ethical line, Katharine E Hamnett, due out next summer, rather than women's, as finer fabrics are needed for women's. However, quality is improving and Hamnett has a women's line in the pipeline, with cotton T-shirts due out early next year.

"It's been an incredibly hard research process, establishing those supply chains," she said.

But Quehe said the creativity of emerging designers is acting as a catalyst. "The market is finally responding," she said.

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